Matt Vickers: Dignity both in choosing death and living with pain

Lecretia would agree with John Roughan, who said last weekend, "there is in fact dignity in living with pain and incapacity and we should not take it away". Photo / Mark Mitchell
Lecretia would agree with John Roughan, who said last weekend, "there is in fact dignity in living with pain and incapacity and we should not take it away". Photo / Mark Mitchell

Last week Matthew Jansen took umbrage at my statement that his exploitation of a Belgian teen's death to further his cause was vile, because I had never met him. But nor had he met the Belgian teen whose death he was so quick to judge. Nor had he or the Care Alliance met my wife, Lecretia Seales, before intervening to obstruct her plea to the High Court. I know Jansen more than he knew either of those people.

Lecretia would agree with John Roughan, who said last weekend, "there is in fact dignity in living with pain and incapacity and we should not take it away". But she distinguished between living and dying, and she would have also said that the dignity of dying with pain and incapacity is subjective. She would never presume to question those who value redemptive suffering until death, but she, like many others, did not.

In December, Roughan accused me of being dishonest about my wife's death because I hadn't immediately shared the depth of her suffering in a tribute I wrote shortly after she died, ignoring the possibility that perhaps, as a grieving husband who had just lost his wife, I wasn't willing to share those details publicly and have the media argue whether she'd suffered enough.

He also suggested that Lecretia could have been palliatively sedated, despite Lecretia being quite clear in her affidavits that that was not what she wanted. Perhaps Roughan could accept that all I want for my wife was what she wanted for herself and others: to have her autonomy respected and to not to be judged by others for it.

Both Roughan and Jansen argue against legalising assisted dying because of the risk of a "slippery slope", claiming that if moderate legislative change is made then more extreme change will surely follow. It is demonstrably fallacious. When same sex marriage was proposed, opponents protested that it would lead to legalisation of group marriage, bestiality and worse. None of those things have eventuated.

What they are threatened by is the possibility that legalised assisted dying will work without problems and abuses, and that its success will automatically translate to a wider category of individuals.

Law doesn't work like that. Proponents would have to convince Parliament to extend assisted dying to those with chronic degenerative illnesses or to minors. It would be an entirely separate discussion, and it is not a decision that needs to be made right now. I argue we should legislate where we have the strongest evidence, and that is for the terminally ill. If there is reliable evidence that any of the problems opponents predict eventuate in New Zealand, I would be among the first to withdraw support for taking the laws further.

Nor is a law change irreversible. The Northern Territory in Australia legalised euthanasia in 1995 before it was repealed in 1997. Assisted dying was legal in New Mexico before it was overturned in 2015.

If assisted dying law reaches the state of being irreversible in New Zealand it will be because it works, and people see the value in it. If people ultimately support broader eligibility criteria, it will be because doctors and patients are making the right decisions and have earned our trust.

The Care Alliance will not be idle if a law is passed. They will publicise as many details as they can of every difficult case. It would only be those of very firm convictions, like my late wife, who would willingly throw themselves into the teeth of that scrutiny. The threat of harassment and negative publicity from the Care Alliance and allies like Right to Life and Family First, as Lecretia and I experienced, will act as the strongest safeguard of all.

Assisted dying is a conflict of incompatible values, and both values are worthy of respect. But to use the law to allow one set of moral values to restrict the rights of those with different ideas about compassion is more a feature of Iran or Afghanistan than New Zealand.

Making assisted dying legal acknowledges both values. It leaves religious institutions free to make their own declarations about its morality - as with contraception, as with abortion, as with marriage - while leaving those who don't subscribe to organised religion to be free to live and die as we choose, whether we support assisted dying or not.

In a country like New Zealand, with over 40 per cent of us identifying as irreligious in the 2013 Census, that's the only reasonable way for the law to be.

Matt Vickers' late wife, Lecretia Seales, made her final weeks a test case for reform of the law forbidding euthanasia in NZ.

- NZ Herald

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